What Is Better?

Published: 2013-05-15

I already posted about becoming better. But what does that actually mean? What is better? What should one strive for?

As already noted, this is no absolute. So what I currently think of as "better" might change as I come closer to it. But my current understanding of what one should aim for are virtues:

A virtue is a positive trait or quality deemed to be morally good and thus is valued as a foundation of principle and good moral being. Personal virtues are characteristics valued as promoting collective and individual greatness.

But what is a virtue? Many different virtues have been proposed over time, and which virtues are considered more important depends on whom you ask. And of course there are differences between religious and philosophical interpretations.

I personally prefer the definition of Aristotle, where a virtue is a point between a deficiency and an excess of a trait. This both accounts for the fact that nothing is absolute and that everything can be excessed. For instance, generosity is a virtue. But letting others exploit oneself is overdoing it. Truthfulness/honesty is also a virtue. But telling everybody what one thinks, always, without any palliation or empathy (Radical Honesty) is also overdoing it. And it collides with the virtues of tolerance and respect. So instead of going for the extremes, one should always target at the golden mean.

So there is no simple solution. You cannot adopt a reflex like always give or always say yes and thereby become better. You always need to be thoughtful about it and make a decision that depends on the context of the situation and the people involved. Which is probably, why wisdom or prudence is so important (e.g. for Seneca and Plato): it is the basis that is needed to be able to achieve the other virtues.

But this is all so theoretical. What does this mean in practice? Do I need to become a voluntary doctor in some third world country to count as kind? Or do I need to donate everything and live in poverty myself to count as generous? I think a very good practical answer is given in the movie Groundhog Day: Find or imagine your perfect partner and then strife to become the perfect partner for him or her. And then with everything you do, act as if you were watched by him or her. This both results in some very practical and actionable behavioral guidelines and has some added benefits in terms of your partnership.

I'd love to read your response.
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